Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for December 2011

Exodus 35:20 – 36:7
moses doré
Where are we in the Exodus narrative, which features so many ascents up Mount Sinai, so many conversations between God and Moses, and so many instructions for the building and adornment of the Tabernacle, the portable Sanctuary in the wilderness?

Well, Moses has received the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai and the Israelites have committed the sin of the golden calf. Moses has broken the first set of tablets, and gone back up Mount Sinai, returning with two new tablets.

What happens next? Moses assembles the children of Israel and explains to them the commandment to observe Shabbat. He then charges them to make donations for God, that is to say, for the building of the Tabernacle. He asks for all kinds of precious metals and
valuable textiles, but – and this is repeated several times – the donations are brought only by those with a willing heart. The donors were highly motivated and purposeful, and, besides their valuables, they offered their artistic and creative skills. The women spun fine linen and the goldsmiths Bezalel and Oholiob crafted the treasures of the Tabernacle, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge – chochmah, tevunah and da’at.

For those who were in shul on Shabbat Terumah, just three weeks ago, is there not a sense of déjâ vu? For in Exodus 25, God spoke to Moses, telling him to obtain donations from those of a willing heart: gold, silver, onyx, linen, acacia wood – the whole bag of tricks.
Bezalel and Oholiob were charged with the metalwork, just as in our reading today. After the instructions for the Tabernacle, God told Moses to teach the Israelites the commandment of the sabbath: ‘V’shamru v’nei Israel et ha-shabbat, la’asot et ha-shabbat ledorotam brit olam’.1

Precisely while Moses was receiving these commandments, the children of Israel were making and worshipping the golden calf.

The order of events can be confusing for the reader, even for those who hear these sidrot read every year. In the first instance, Moses goes up Mount Sinai where God commands him concerning the Tabernacle and shabbat, in that order. Moses comes down, sees the calf and breaks the tablets. After punishing the wrongdoers, he obeys God’s command to hew two new tablets of stone, and takes them up the mountain. This time God does not write himself but dictates Torah to Moses. Moses returns from Sinai, numinously radiant and assembles the people. He speaks to them about shabbat and the Tabernacle, in that order.

The kind of literary structure which comes up quite often in the Torah is called chiastic, cross-shaped like the Greek letter chi. The pattern is ABCBA: Tabernacle, Shabbat, Calf, Shabbat, Tabernacle. This literary device is found also in non-Hebrew ancient and epic
literature, for example in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.

The passage we are reading today is sometimes seen as describing the repentance of the Israelites, after the sin of the calf, as they bring their treasures so willingly and in such quantities that the wise men tell Moses ‘The people are bringing too much for the work of
the task that the Lord charged to do.’2

But the people are fickle, unreliable. We saw that they donated their jewellery for the molten calf as eagerly as they donate it for the building of the Tabernacle. They are the same multitude of people, changing their opinions and affections, sometimes for Moses and at other times against him; they worship a molten idol and afterwards they worship God.

Moses appears capable of astute political judgment, as he channels the people’s dangerous, volatile energy into building the Tabernacle, governing his unruly nation by involving them in the creation of a Sanctuary where God can dwell among them.

Either Moses knows, or the author of Exodus knows, or God knows that people need sacred objects, sacred space and even sacred land to lead fulfilled religious lives.

A problem may arise if sacredness is seen as residing in the object, rather than in the process where the sacred object plays a symbolic part. Although the children of Israel were more than willing to contribute their gold for the molten calf, their fatal error was in worshipping as a god what was merely an installation. One of the things we hope to learn from these chapters of Exodus is how to call a calf a calf.
26 February 2011

exiles tissot
Jeremiah has a reputation for lamentation and bringing on the bad news, but the verses we are reading are from the section called The Book of Consolation. Jeremiah’s subject is the  joyful return from distant exile of those from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had been overthrown by the Assyrians.

We heard in the Torah about Jacob returning with his family to Canaan, the land which God promised to Abraham and Isaac, and then to Jacob himself. Jacob had a new name, Israel, a name which belonged to all his descendants, the children of Israel. When the kingdom of Israel was divided after Solomon’s time, it was the name taken by the northern kingdom, while the south was called Judah. The biggest tribe in the northern kingdom was Ephraim, and sometimes the prophets used the name Ephraim when they were talking about Israel.

So we have a patriarch with two names, Jacob and Israel, a nation with at least two names, Israel and Judah, and a kingdom, Israel, referred to as Ephraim.

As Jacob and his family travelled south, on the road to Ephrath, his pregnant wife Rachel, whom he loved very much, went into labour and died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin.

Rachel is mentioned in the haftarah, when Jeremiah says:

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.

The meaning of the verse is not absolutely clear. Some commentators thought that Rachel was weeping for the exiles, those who lost their homes when the Assyrians conquered Israel, or perhaps the later exiles when the Babylonians conquered Judah. Either way, Rachel had long been dead, and the idea of her spirit lamenting for her children could apply to any generation.

And where was Ramah actually? It would make sense if it was close to Bethlehem where Rachel was buried, and, as Ramah is a fairly common place name, there may have been such a place, on the road to Ephrath. There was a Ramah to the north of Jerusalem, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, so that also fits Rachel’s story. This was the birth place of the prophet Samuel, the location where Jeremiah was imprisoned and perhaps most significantly, the place where Jeremiah saw Jewish captives being assembled for deportation to Babylon.[1] This would indeed be a reason why Rachel might weep for her children.

[1]  Jeremiah 40:1

Ramah can also mean ‘on high’ which gives the sentence another meaning.

There is a bit of rabbinic folklore, a midrash, which tells that Moses and the patriarchs, Abraham , Isaac and Jacob, all interceded for the children of Israel, asking God to have pity on his children and bring them home from exile. God remained silent. Midrash plays around with chronology, so you can have the patriarchs and Moses all praying at the same time. After that, Rachel interceded, because the exiles were her descendants, through her sons Joseph and Benjamin. She referred to her own experience, overcoming jealousy of her sister Leah, who was Jacob’s other wife and the mother of many of Jacob’s children. Rachel said to God ‘You, too, should forgive my children who have sinned and are now being exiled.’

Then, the midrash tells us, ‘A voice was heard on high of lamentation, of mourning, and weeping, of Rachel weeping for her children’ and God responded ‘For your sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to their land’. And the midrash cites the verse from our chapter of Jeremiah:

Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears… There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country.

For those of you familiar with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, you may remember that Ishmael, the sole survivor of the doomed ship the Pequod, is rescued by a another whaling ship, the Rachel. Now this is not a matter of chance; Melville chose biblical names for their symbolic meaning, and the Rachel, searching for survivors in the North Atlantic, is certainly named with Rachel weeping for her children in mind.

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